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Links of the month: London, Jerusalem, Chicago – Chasiya Freilich June 22, 2010

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Each month I hope to update this section with useful links that I hope will be of benefit to you. Please feel free to look and email us with further suggestions. Our email is

jduinfo@googlemail.com

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Jewish Deaf Association

They provide professional support, information and other social activities for deaf people and their families in the UK.

Yad Sarah

This is an Israeli based organization that provides services for people in Israel. They have various services which include helping children with disabilities after school, and lending medical equipment to people who need it. For this clients pay a deposit which goes to the charity.

The Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders

This organization is based in Chicago and their aim is to educate people in America about Jewish Genetic Disorders. They also provide screening programs. By making people aware of these disorders they hope to prevent these diseases from occurring.

Access to the Place: Some Impressions – Jessica Sacks June 13, 2010

Posted by jewishdisabilityunite in If you call this 'Normal'..., Jewish Law, Society.
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Rabbi Shaul Anvari’s new book of halakhic responsa is entitled Access to the Place – the ‘place’, meaning the home, the workspace, the synagogue. And the ‘Place’, meaning God, ‘the Place of the world’. The book launched last Thursday night in Jerusalem; I am excited to write about it even now. An and-then-this-happened account of the evening would be tedious; the evening was long and full – but I would like to share just a few impressions with you, a few of the moments that have stayed with me.

*

Rav Aviya HaCohen discussing the midrash that describes the Torah as the map by which God created the world. A map which must be updated as the landscape develops, and to which details must be added as new territory, the areas in the periphery which the people of the centre ignore – is explored. Shaul as an intrepid explorer of one such place. Making it accessible.

*

Shoshana Goldberg Mayer from Milbat, the Israel Center for Technology and Accessibility, telling us of the solutions the volunteer engineers and occupational therapists of the organization create for the problems people with disabilities bring them. Telling us of the middle-aged religious woman who came to them, asking them to find her a way to light Shabbat candles for herself, despite her visual impairment and unsteady hand. Of how, when she was enabled to light her own candles for the first time, the woman had said, “Now, at last, I can be with God alone”.

*

Shaul’s speech, which he had typed out beforehand, so that each of us held a copy in our hands. Slowly, slowly, he read what he had written; and silence in the room as each of us strained to understand from his voice, the words that we were reading on the sheet in front of us. My friend Sagi, who is blind, sitting silently in the front row.

*

Michael Ben Admon, Shaul’s neighbour from the kibbutz, asking how this book affects his own religious life, as an able-bodied Jew. Citing the Religious Kibbutz Movement thinkers Moshe Unna and Tzuriel Admonit, who describe Torah study as a social value, and the incompleteness of my own religious fulfillment when another Jew is excluded from his. “All of Israel are involved with one another.” Michael describing his own children walking by Shaul in the kibbutz with their friends and pointing at him, saying, “That man is a scholar: he writes halakha.”

*

An old friend of Shaul’s from his yeshiva days, a singer, providing a musical interlude. “This is the tune that Shaul would always demand when I led the prayers in the yeshiva:” How can I repay the LORD for all that He has done for me? […] I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid – You have opened my chains.

*

After the speeches ended I went up to the speakers to ask if they had anything written that I could put up on the site (watch this space). I caught up with Rav Aviya beside the entrance – “Can I ask you a question?” I said. He nodded and led me aside, to a quiet place where he could hear me. Suddenly I realized that he did not know whether my question was a request for an article or a loan, for advice on an unplanned pregnancy or a solution to the problem of Evil, and that he was ready to listen to whatever I asked and to respond without judgment, with all that he could bring me from his learning and being.

Walking home I understood what it was that excited me so much about this event. Not only the book, though the book is new and important. I realized that Orthodoxy has two faces, one open, one closed. The face which is closed opens only to the ‘password’, to what is familiar to it. And so it is closed not only to those who are a little different from the norm, but in some ways, to everyone – to everyone who has something in her that is not familiar and already known. And the face which is open is open to whatever and whoever may come, straining to hear something different and unknown, just as we all strained to hear Shaul speak, slowly, reading from the sheet he had prepared. Straining to hear each person’s voice. And this face is capable of hearing something new; genuinely new. That is the face that greeted me on Thursday night.

Shaul Anvari’s book, Access to the Place, is published in Hebrew by Mishlavim, Yeshivat Ein-Tzurim. For more information, contact us at jduinfo@googlemail.com. Shaul is already working on his next book, and welcomes any halakhic questions on issues relating to disability.

Thoughts on Working with Children – Dana Berezowsky May 27, 2010

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Dan said in school yesterday that Ami’s legs disgust him. Why? “Because they are crooked.” Ella’s response: “So you’re perfect, are you?” My response: “Deal with it.”

Now, writing about it at home, another question arises: what does it bring up for Dan, or any other child, to see a person with a physical difference? Perhaps fear? The fear that it could happen to me too? Disability is frightening at the most personal level – what if it happens to me? What if I have a child like this? Noam, who works with the survivors of wars and road accidents, sees it all the time – this coming to terms with what is lost.

I remember a man I once saw with three other children on the bus. Through the window we could see that he walked a little funny. It’s true. But if we tell him – he will be hurt. If we laugh at him from a distance – it will be insensitive. He really does have a funny walk. I try to think what I would tell my own children.

I have a problem with preaching morals. “We don’t say things like that,” “It’s not nice” – this kind of speech represses the problem but does not make it disappear. Then I thought to say – “I wonder whether he’s a nice person.”

Perhaps this is what takes us beyond our superficial judgments: of what is beautiful, ugly, disabled. The question “Who is this person?” To see him as a person. Even if I have no intention of actually getting to know him, my perspective on him might change.

And to Dan? “So what if Ami has crooked legs?” There is no point trying to blur the facts. But we can point out different aspects of them. And certainly we can point out to Dan that saying it in Ami’s hearing is very insulting…

Dan told me the answer: “It disgusts me”. That is a strong statement. Does it frighten him? Can disgust hide some other feeling? All the same, is it not worth trying to understand the source of his disgust? Does Dan’s statement really come from some inner feeling, or is he looking for a way to provoke a response? Also a question.

As an educator I have two options: to cancel out Dan’s statement in a few words; “Deal with it”; “So you’re perfect, are you?” Or else to enter into the depths of the issue. This in itself removes the sting from the provocation: he wanted to annoy, and got a lecture.

The correct response must depend on the time and place, and we are bound to get it wrong many times. In the end, intuition and experience are the best tools we have.

Dana Berezowsky is an occupational therapist working at the Ilonot School, Jerusalem, and in a ‘training apartment‘ for teenagers with Cerebral Palsy. Translation: Jessica Sacks.

If you call this ‘Normal’… – Jessica Sacks May 13, 2010

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I am ‘healthy’. That is, I have not been diagnosed with any disability, I have full use of my limbs and senses, and I am able to live an active life in society. Sometimes a little too active for my liking. But otherwise, I am ‘healthy’, and ‘normal’.

I have always been a little involved, through my friend Cissie, with a different kind of normal. Together we used to go to summer-schools for children with disabilities; summer camps where the activities were accessible to people who used wheelchairs or who could not see or hear or think problems through in the same way I can. The camp counselors, though I did not know it at the time, included physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and special education teachers. For me it was just a summer camp like any other; moments I enjoyed, moments when I was bored, children I liked more, children I liked less.

Nowadays life is a little different. I work in an office which does not have a disabled-access toilet. This means that I will probably never have a colleague there who uses a wheelchair. Not because they could not do the job, but because they could not use the building. I live on the second floor of a building with no lift. I live in a hilly city full of steep slopes, irregular outdoor staircases and building-sites which spill across the pavement into the road. I have come to realize that I live in a world where not everybody is seen, not everybody is listened-to, not everybody can access the things, the culture, the human contact, that make my life good.

This hurts me, not because I pity these people – people can have good lives which are not the same as mine. It hurts me because of what it means about the society I live in.

Through my friendship with Cissie I have become involved with building this forum. I have begun to listen out more to the ways in which the society I live in defines who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Through the Israel Disability Studies Network I am beginning to learn more about what this means and how we can make things change. For me this is one of the biggest adventures of my life: it means seeing my world in a completely new way. I am planning to keep a diary of this journey on the site, and welcome anyone who would like to join me on my way, to inform, share, comment, scream, laugh. Educate me, please…

Braille Menus in the Cafes of Jerusalem – Sagi Yudovitz May 5, 2010

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“We have a menu in Braille!” the waitress greets me joyfully, and rushes to lay it down in front of me. This is fast becoming a common event in the cafes and restaurants of Jerusalem, thanks to the activities of Bema’aglei Tzedek.

The organization publishes menus in Braille as part of the ‘Social Seal’ project. “Lately,” the organisation’s Ohad Zakbach explains, “We have begun to distribute large-print as well as Braille menus, to make things easier for partially-sighted people who are not completely blind.”  Zakbach, speaking on the radio programme ‘Lo Ro’im MiMeter’, explained why the organization has chosen to focus on providing menus for visually impaired people.  In his view, the chance to receive a menu in a form that suits his or her needs, enables a blind or partially-sighted person to experience a greater degree of independence in places of leisure.  Zackbach added that the Braille menus encourage the more frequent and more natural presence of visually impaired people in public leisure spaces, making the wider population more accustomed to the routine presence of people with disabilities in these sites.

The experiment demonstrates that the presence of people with disabilities in general, and in this case, visually impaired people, in places of leisure and in all areas of life, has the effect of breaking stigmas, of undermining walls of repulsion and of educating the public at large to see a person with disabilities as a full personality, and not simply as a function of his disability.

The existence of the Braille menu in a café or restaurant creates an expectation among its workers that people with visual impairments will be among their customers.  The ‘magic writing’ engages their curiosity, and when they finally meet a blind customer, they are eager to ask him about the script, and a conversation is opened up.  This conversation between waiter and customer changes the latter from an anonymous figure to a known, named acquaintance, with a certain sense of belonging to the place.

Humanity could presumably continue to survive without the presence of Braille menus in restaurants.  These menus, however, help blind customers to feel an integral part of the leisure environment.  Large-print menus, by contrast, are utterly essential to people with partial sight; the population at large does not grant these the attention with which fully blind people are lavished, too often leaving partially sighted people in a position of embarrassment.  The enormous gap between the ways in which the blind and partially sighted members of society are treated is a subject for another article; it may be said, however, that when people see a blind person they are generally more than enthusiastic to go out of their way to be of help.

‘Can’t See for Miles’, a magazine programme on issues relating to the blind and partially-sighted community, broadcast on Mount Scopus Radio and online. Sagi Yudovitz is a social activist who keeps a blog on the Israel Disability Experts’ Community site, abiliko.

The Equality for People with Disabilities Law 1998: at the Crossroads between Charity and Right – Dr. Dina Feldman April 2, 2010

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“You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Rabbi Akiva said: This is a central principle of the Torah.

Ben Azai said: “This is the Book of the History of Man… the Lord created him in the image of God.” This is a greater principle still.

Until that legal happening of the winter of 1998, the enactment of the Law of Equality for People with Disabilities, most of the 10% of Israel’s citizens who live with disability, lived as “Other”, “hidden”, “demonic” citizens. They were entitled to certain special benefits – “social rights” – but nonetheless were effectively hidden away within an inaccessible society.

“Other”, “hidden”, “demonic”, mean being denied the right to a full life in the community, equal opportunities at work, integration, and access to those other human rights that should belong to all of us in all areas of our lives. Without these rights, people are denied the opportunity to take social responsibility, an essential ingredient for building up a sense of belonging and commitment to the community. Only with these rights can a person really feel herself to be a citizen of her county, and be seen as such by others.

The hiddenness of people with disabilities is evident even in Israel’s Declaration of Independence (1948). In this Declaration, the new State acknowledged the danger that certain groups may be disadvantaged or discriminated against within it. In response to this, it voiced the need to take action to establish the right to equality, to a life of dignity, to liberty and honest labour, for all of Israel’s citizens. This was stated in relation to categories of religion, race and gender – completely ignoring the large minority of people with disabilities, many of whom were, for many years, consigned to residential institutions.

A similar effect arose in the Law of Equal Opportunities at Work (1988) – Paragraph 2a. The law prohibits discrimination between workers and between applicants on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, personal or family status, age, race, religion, nationality, origin, political orientation, army credentials or the likelihood of being called up for reserve duty – but not on the basis of disability. This despite the immeasurably high unemployment rate among people with disabilities, in comparison to any other group one might care to mention.

“The Ideal Body”; “the Desired Image”

We may surmise that the exclusion of the disabled population at that time, stemmed largely from the developing Israeli collective’s need to deny the existence of a large sector of society seemingly suffering from “defects”. From the desire that prevailed at that time, to grasp on to a yearned-for, wholesome image of the “new Jew”, now being resurrected in the Land of Israel. This social tendency, indeed, is still with us today, and seems to be a direct product of the preference for “the desired body”, which Israeli society aspires to establish as the antithesis of the life of Exile. Israelis are highly concerned with fertility – but for the birth of healthy children only. The secular Israeli public locates itself on a moral slippery slope, laid out by advances in gene technology and overstepping the right they acquire for them, to define what “quality of life” might be. Israel’s crossing of the point of no return is discernable in the fact that a failure to carry out tests to for genetic defects may today be considered medical negligence, and the grounds for a judicial claim of “wrongful birth”.

Over a long period, then, Israel’s society and government have chosen to grant people with disabilities chessed – kindness – investing huge sums of money in the effort, while failing to lift a finger to remove the obstacles that prevent people with disabilities fulfilling their rights as equal citizens, and becoming fully integrated into society. The same is true in relation to equal opportunities at work: in this case the tendency to ignore the issue seems to reflect society’s lack of faith in the capacity of differently abled people to make an active contribution to the social life of the State, or to the employment market. This particularly touches upon those people who receive National Insurance benefits, and who were disabled at birth or in non-heroic circumstances. These people receive maintenance payments on the grounds of handicap, and of their inability to earn a living themselves. Many people believe that this leads, in the long term, to a decrease in motivation to enter the employment market, which would disqualify them from the benefit system.

Those, on the other hand, who have been rendered disabled by the Holocaust or during their military service, and now also those injured in terror attacks, who carry a more heroic aura now than in the past, enjoy a privileged status among the differently abled. This finds expression in special social rights and in a guarantee of equal opportunities in higher education, employment and all other areas of life. This privileged approach is demonstrated in the higher levels of integration these groups show in relation to other recipients of the disability allowance. State controller report 252 (2002) points out that this is due mostly to the addressing of individual needs, and not to the application of principles of social justice. The Social Justice ideology is characterized by a lack of discrimination on the basis of disability, and by the advancement of equality and integration as independent values. This vision would entail, among other things, a reasonable level of physical accessibility and social awareness, as played out in the attitudes of people, in buildings and in infrastructure, in public spaces and services; accessibility and awareness that, in the State of Israel, are almost non-existent.

The same trend is evident in the 2003 study carried out by the Commission for Equality, on the subject of accessibility in educational, health-care, bank and shopping-centre buildings, and likewise in their 2005 study of public attitudes to people with disabilities. The Israeli public is prepared to perform numerous acts of charity, and is to be admired for this, but so far it has showed no inclination towards justice.

“Deaf”, “Idiot” and “Minor”

This social attitude has a strong basis in monotheism. In the halakha, as in other religious systems, a person “without intellect” occupies a considerably problematic position with regard to his obligation in the commandments and to his right to participation in communal life. Questions are raised as to whether these people are obligated by the commandments, public and private, what their status may be in marriage and divorce, whether they are obliged to “be fruitful and multiply”, whether a contract signed with them is valid, whether they may be regarded as property owners and whether one requires their permission to use their belongings.

Jewish legal writings reveal that people with disabilities are accorded partial social obligations, decided mainly by the level of understanding ascribed to the individual by the legal authority in question. People with physical or sensual impairments who have full use of their mental faculties are subjected to the same approach. Legal authorities and community leaders are still captive to the “ideal body” image of the “Chosen People”, and unaware of the vast effect that could be achieved by an education adapted to technological advances, education to the values of accessibility, and the removal of stigmas, which could completely change the face of the realities of life as a differently abled person, and of her ability to integrate into and contribute to society in every area. Today it seems essential to re-evaluate, with all the social courage needed, the possibility of returning religious and social responsibilities to people with disabilities, and of affording them the physical and social access that would allow them to take full part in the community and to contribute to it, independently and with full dignity.

“Accessible”, “Independent” and “Dignified”

The 1998 Law of Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities utterly rejects the common claim that the difficulties people with disabilities have to integrate into society proceed from weaknesses of those people. Instead it ascribes the blame to the ways in which society has blocked disabled peoples’ access to integration and success. The law looks Israeli society squarely in the eye and demands that it recognize people with disabilities as a group with the capacity and the right to dignified lives, to dignity and to honest employment. All this grounded in independence and human rights; no longer upon favours, kindnesses and charity. Let us recall that there is nothing new in this idea; that this is the command inscribed in Ben Azai’s favoured verse – “This is the Book of the History of Man…”

The Law of Equal Rights sees in people with any disability, full citizens like every other. These people, like all others, may exercise their rights, and receive services designed with maximum consideration for their lives, with full attention paid to their human dignity and freedom, and in protection of their privacy. This within the framework of the services offered to all citizens, which should be adapted appropriately like all other public services – of a high enough quality, within a reasonable time-frame and at a reasonable distance from each person’s home, giving him full rights to make his own decisions with regard to his life, in accordance with his own will and preferences. It is no longer acceptable, then, to discriminate against a person on grounds of disability, either in selection for employment, or in his conditions of employment, promotion or redundancy, as long as he is qualified for the job. The law also stipulates that all public buildings and institutes, including those privately owned, must be made accessible to people with all forms of disability within 6-12 years. This is an enormous challenge to all of us, requiring awareness, organization and a deep commitment to bring back to the fold this minority which is part of us, “flesh of our flesh”. It is the law. It is possible. It must happen.

Meet the Rabbi – Shaul and Yossi Anvari February 4, 2010

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Rabbi Shaul Anvari is researching Jewish Law as it applies to many dilemmas that face people with disabilities. We will be publishing his responsa and welcome any halakhic questions you may have on living a Jewish life as a diffently abled person. Please send your questions to jduinfo@googlemail.com. Here Rav Shaul and his father Yossi (in italics) tell the story of what brought him to this point.

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Shaul, 42, suffers from cerebral palsy and lives in the religious kibbutz Sdeh Eliahu, Israel.

My name is Shaul Anvari, and I was born in Kibbutz Sdeh Eliahu in the year 5727, on the 11th of Av. At birth I was submerged in ambiotic fluid and could not breathe for a long time. The result was serious damage to my four limbs and my speech. My parents immediately knew that there had been damage but only saw the signs of it after a number of months when I could not turn over from my back onto my stomach.

When Shaul was a year old we understood that he and we would face difficulties throughout our lives, and we decided that this was to be the challenge of our lives.

Everyone pulled together to help me – my parents, my family and the kibbutz. The kibbutz provided me with a full-time carer. They understood from the beginning that I have no intellectual disability, and that I had to be in the company of people my own age. I took part in all the children’s activities. When we played football they let me be in goal, on hikes they carried me on their backs, at work I joined the other children cleaning the kibbutz kitchen for Passover, working in the vineyard or looking after the children’s garden.

Shaul was completely integrated in the education system, with an additional carer to help with his special needs, so that we, his parents, could work and continue to live our lives in the kibbutz to the full.

Everyone worked with me on my independence: from dressing, washing and cycling to independent thinking and decision-making. From grades 1 to 6 I studied in a special school in Tel Aviv and lived with the wonderful Feldman family who adopted me and gave me as much warmth and love as if I’d been a member of the family.

When we went to the adventure playground in Tel Aviv we met a woman with a little boy. When the child asked her, “What’s wrong with him?” his mother said Shhh… When we began playing, some children came up to us and asked, “What’s wrong with him?” I explained to them in a couple of sentences and the children began playing with him in the sand, speaking to him completely freely.

When I came home at weekends and in the vacations, I was assigned a carer and I went to join the children, and even visited the classroom in the Shaked School. From grade 7 to grade 12 I studied there. On the first day I came to the class with a carer. Before the first lesson, my classmates took me and we “drove” the broken-down car in the playground. That year, children from the nearby villages Beit-Yosef and Yardena also joined the class, and they were not invited to join this game… In those years I still did not know how to read. They had to search for a way to teach me.

The psychologist we consulted with suggested that we flash words and short sentences in front of Shaul’s eyes. In those days the first PC’s, such as the Apple 2, had just arrived, and the idea came up that we could build a computer programme which would flash words up onto the screen. While Shaul sat by the computer and his carer, Gadi Raz of blessed memory, worked at entering the words into it, we noticed that Shaul was much more interested in, and understood much better, how the programme itself worked, than anything that that was happening on the screen. From then on, Shaul moved on to programming and using the computer himself, something which completely changed his life.

We needed to find a solution to allow me to work the computer – my hands aren’t able to type. I found that the limbs that function the best for me are my feet. For me to run a computer with my feet, and to learn to read, a team was needed to build a whole system to allow me. A team got together and worked for many hours with no payment at all. All these volunteers came from within the kibbutz.

At that time, a feature on Shaul was broadcast on television, on the only channel Israel had. Many people and families called us up after that; some of them came to visit us on the kibbutz, and I went to visit others with Shaul. Then we realized what an enormous difference it makes for a family with a disabled child to have the good fortune to receive support from its society. This support allowed us and Shaul to make progress and achieve, while families who have to get by alone sometimes run out of strength along the way.

When I reached my school final exams, my papers had to be laid out as multiple-choice tests, because my way of writing is very slow. All the teachers applied themselves to this, and some went beyond themselves and prepared more difficult papers for me than the Ministry of Education’s. When I left school I went and studied at the Yeshiva of the Religious Kibbutz Movement at Ein Tzurim. I slotted in naturally to the Shiluv programme with other boys my age. I studied there for seven years with the other students. I could tell which of them saw me as a regular person and which defined me as a person with disabilities. Several times I received invitations to the weddings of students I had no contact with. On the other hand, others studied with me in a natural and genuine way. During the years of my studies I wrote a number of articles on Jewish Law which were published in the Yeshiva’s journal, and once I gave a lecture to the other students.

When I had had my fill of Torah, and felt equal to all the other students in the Yeshiva, I went to volunteer in the Beit Hagalgalim centre. Beit Hagalgalim is a club which integrates people with disabilities with people without, religious and non-religious alike. The first time I went there, the professionals there told me, “You are still a boy, you must be a participant, not a counselor.” Nothing helped, though I told them about my studies at yeshiva and the articles I’d written. I was very hurt, and said to myself, “These of all people ought to be able to accept people with disabilities.” For seven years I tried to persuade them to let me be a counselor. In the seventh year, finally, “I won”, and became a counselor in Beit Hagalgalim.

By the age of 36 I wanted to become more independent. I decided to move to Beit Kassler, a home for people with disabilities. On the first day, they took my medication away from me. I told them that at home I am responsible for this; two weeks later they gave it back. To begin with I lived with a roommate, which was difficult; after three months I got a room to myself. My best contact was with the Arab carers; they were warm people, and tied my tefillin for me; even now I am still in touch with them. I stress this in contrast with most of the Jewish Russian carers, who were cold people with very little sympathy (it’s hard for me to write this but I’m afraid it is true). I will give an example. With regard to kosher food, the Arab workers were respectful, and the Jewish ones did not respect my needs at all. Once I went to the deputy director to ask to act as kashrut supervisor in the kitchen. She agreed, and then brought in an outside supervisor, a chareidi man who scarcely knew the laws. She explained that this man had a supervisor’s certificate and I did not. Towards the end of my stay there, I could scarcely eat anything… I left the kibbutz because I was no longer religious, and then came back because I am religious; so the wheel comes full circle… Looking back, this was a very important period in my life.

While Shaul was in Beit Kassler, and when he came back to the kibbutz, he always stayed in good contact with many friends, and whenever he comes to the synagogue, if for some reason I am not there, there is always someone who will tie his tefillin for him.

While I was at Beit Kassler I began to study for rabbinical ordination. Just over a year ago I received ordination from my respected teacher Rabbi David Bigman, the head of the Yeshiva of Ma’aleh Gilboa. Today I am working on a book of the Jewish Laws of Disability. Some of my writing appears in Hebrew on my website http://shaul-anvari.info/

 

 

[Translation: Jessica Sacks]

Disability and Judaism: Society’s Influence on Halacha – Summary January 29, 2010

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There is a story in the Talmud which teaches us something about the way people see people with disabilities. Once a great rabbi called Rabbi Simeon met “an ugly man” as he walked home from studying Torah. He was so shocked to see the ugly person after learning beautiful words, that he said “How ugly this idiot is!” The man, who was certainly not an idiot, was very hurt. He said, “Why don’t you go and tell the Artist who made me [that is, God] what an ugly thing he’s made!” Rabbi Simeon realized what a stupid thing he had said, and begged the man to forgive him.

This story shows us that each of us is made as we are by God. If we keep this in mind we will see that nobody is perfect, but nobody is ugly.

All the same, people with disabilities have always had different rights and responsibilities in Jewish Law than others. As society changes, so the law develops. Sometimes the rabbis see a change in society and change the law, and sometimes the law itself makes a change in Jewish society.

In ancient times, deaf people could not learn to communicate, and so they were treated like people who cannot understand. In the last two hundred years, we have learnt ways to educate deaf children, and they can fully take part in society. Slowly, rabbis responded to this and gave deaf people a bigger part to play in Jewish life.

Blind people, on the other hand, could always communicate by speaking. Jewish Law always protected blind people and insisted that they should be treated with respect, just like everyone else. In this way, Jewish Law was ahead of its time.

The attitudes of people in the Jewish community affect the way the law develops to include more and more people. This is very important if we want the Torah to remain an inspiration for ourselves and other people.

Disability and Judaism: Society’s Influence on Halacha – Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau January 28, 2010

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1. We all have disabilities

To be a person of Torah is to take on a quest to reveal the light of God which shines out of the Torah, as it has been revealed to human beings. Halacha [Jewish law], in as far as it is a translation of the Godly Idea into human behaviour, must radiate that light for which all those who worship the Almighty pray. Among the subjects that linger disconcertingly between light and darkness is society’s approach to people with disabilities. Already in the Talmud we find the story of one of the greatest scholars of the Tanaitic period (70-220 CE), Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar, who studied Torah from Rabbi Meir, and returned home completely caught up in the joy of his studies, which consumed his entire character:

He happened upon a man who was extremely ugly. The man said, “Shalom to you, Rabbi!” Rabbi Simeon did not reply. Instead he exclaimed, “Idiot! How ugly that man is! Could it be that all the people of your city are as ugly as you?”

The man said, “I do not know, why not go to the Artisan who made me, and tell Him, ‘How ugly that vessel is that You made!’”

When Rabbi Simeon realized that he had done wrong, he dismounted from his donkey and fell down at the man’s feet, saying, “I fully accept – please forgive me.” “I will not forgive you,” said the man, “until you go to that Artist who made me and tell him, ‘How ugly that vessel is that You made.’”[1]

The gap between the harmonious light of Torah and this offence to perfection that is the “extremely ugly” man, strikes Rabbi Simeon like a blow. The Torah he has been learning has not refined his character, but rather had sharpened his aspiration to “angelic” completeness, which refuses to encounter an ugly reality.

The “ugly man”, then, refers Rabbi Simeon to the source of all ugliness in the world: the Holy One, the Artisan who made him. This is a decisive religious statement, which seeks to cancel out the categories of beautiful and ugly as seen by human beings, and to bring them instead to a more holistic vision, which takes account of the fact that God created all of mankind, in all the forms it may take, in His own image. Not, that is, with a godly body – for God has no body – but rather with an essential nature that is divine, an associate in the creation and advancement of the world. Man created in God’s image is not God – he is “a little less” (Ps. 8:6). This is what brings us to the absolute knowledge that all of us are people with disabilities.

It is worth remembering that when we engage with sources from the past we are touching the very pulse of a society’s life. The sources of the Oral Law are shaped in a human society and are intimately bound both to the norms of that society and to changes in those norms. What approach has Jewish society taken through the ages to people with physical and cognitive disabilities? Did the Torah lead to these people’s acceptance into society, or was she part of the universal tendency to exclude? What attitude has the religious community taken in the modern era, as the world outside goes through a process of acceptance and integration? Has the religious world led this movement, gone along with it, or remained far behind?

There is a genuine expectation that the world of Torah should pave the way when it comes to attitudes to people with disabilities, people who were also created in the image of God. There are also disappointments, as we look at the sources and see where the great minds of the outside world have taken society vast leaps forward with regard to these attitudes, while Jewish scholars merely reacted later on to these ethical advances.

I would like to demonstrate with two examples; one in which the halacha has followed after human progress, and one in which it has led the way for humanity as a whole. First – in relation to deafness, and second – to blindness.

2. The Status of Deaf People – Halacha’s Response to a Change in the World

In the Jewish Law of ancient times, deaf people had the same status as the mentally retarded. They were distanced from society and free of its obligations. Until the 18th century, people with severe hearing impairments were not integrated into the education system and nothing useful was expected to come of them. The sages, likewise, related to deaf people as to people with no intelligence, exempt from all the obligations of a mature human being.

With the establishment of schools for the deaf, and the development of sign language, which enables people with severe hearing impairments to communicate with those around them, the world has made huge steps forward in its relations with deaf people. It is fascinating to read the attitudes expressed by rabbis during the period in which people with aural impairments were just beginning to be integrated into society.

The discussion centred around the question of whether the change in the status of deaf people in society should influence their status in halacha; are these people now obligated by the commandments? Are they able to be married and divorced? May they perform other legal actions that require mature awareness? In the words of Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (late 19th century) we may find an interim summary:

In the case of a deaf person who has been taught to speak in a school for the deaf (in the technique that has been developed in recent years), such that there is no difference between him and other people, apart from lacking the sense of hearing and a certain degree of speech impediment, while his intellect and understanding in all dealings are as those of any hearing person, the leading authorities of our generation are in disagreement. Some say that such a person is like a hearing person in every way, and has the legal status of one who speaks but does not hear. Others categorize him as a ‘retarded person’, giving him the same status as one who neither speaks nor hears. Other authorities are undecided and judge strictly in each case, because of the doubt. [2]

One of those who deemed this group to be ‘like any hearing person’ is the Great Rabbi Chaim of Sanz, of blessed memory, who wrote a responsum[3] to Rabbi Yehuda Libush of Levov, to demonstrate that a deaf person who has learnt to communicate is like a hearing person, with the legal status of one who ‘speaks but does not hear’.

Among those who did not reach a decision on the matter was the great Rabbi M. Shik. Rabbi Shik investigated the matter in depth in his responsum (Even Ha’Ezer 79), and his indecision is implied the conclusion of a long discussion of several different categories of deaf people:

And all the same it seems that a deaf person who has accustomed himself to speak at a school still has not removed himself from doubt. He is not to be considered a person of full intellect, and is not to be counted in a minyan [quorum of ten men needed for communal prayer], or relied upon to fulfill ones’ obligations [vicariously, eg by making the collective blessing over wine on Shabbat], and one cannot eat meat that he has slaughtered; in my humble view this is the correct approach to take.

The doubt over which these authorities are debating is the question of whether a deaf person’s intellect is normal or defective. Professor Victor Jenner brought about a global change in this area when he published his pedagogical treatise for the training of deaf and dumb children (1832-6). He proved that people with hearing impairments have full capability to acquire spoken language: they have sufficient intellect to learn languages, the necessary speech organs, the senses required to take in linguistic forms, and that beside all this they also have other means of communicating with others. This research took root in the world, and from the mid-19th century onwards, attitudes to deaf people in Western Europe improved immensely.

Rabbi Hildesheimer lived at the end of the 19th century, read the relevant studies, and saw the educational achievements of the schools for the deaf. As a result of all this he reached the following conclusions:

The realities have disproved the view expressed by the great Rabbi M. Shik, that a deaf person who is educated acts like an ape; namely, that he does nothing but what has been fixed and imprinted in him through repetition and rote-learning, and that he has no free choice or intellect.

Rabbi Hildesheimer’s responsum proceeds to demonstrate that the rabbis of mid-19th century Germany had continued to debate the point, without fully accepting the change in the legal status of people with aural impairments. A generation later, however, Rabbi Hildesheimer himself was well aware of the implications of the scientific and pedagogic changes that had taken place in the area of hearing impairment. In response to those rabbis continuing to relate to the deaf as to people without mental faculties he writes:

… This, however, was the prevalent attitude to deaf people at that time (Sha’ar Haz’kenim was published in 1830, and it is not recorded when that specific responsum was written. Rabbi Y.D. Bamburger’s responsum, likewise, does not record the time of its writing). Medical writings from that period upheld the same views, and it is only later on that the doctors’ opinions were amended, until they reached the conclusion that deaf people have mental powers (and only a difficulty in bringing this potential into full expression) and this view has been borne out in the experience of our own times. There is no contradiction here with the words of our sages, who only referred to deaf people with no opportunity to access their own intellectual potential. In my humble view we must not follow these great minds in deciding that a deaf person’s education has no significance. In post-factum cases, however, we must certainly make efforts to rely upon their words.

Behind the debate on the status of people with hearing impairments stands a deeper disagreement on the ability of society and scientific progress to affect basic assumptions in the world of the Torah. Rabbi Hildesheimer, aware of this anxiety, reassures his readers:

There is no doubt that research in the natural sciences has no authority to contradict the traditions received from the sages. Here, however, we are simply interpreting the sages, to determine whether they made no distinction between one deaf person and another, or whether their intention was only to rule on a deaf person without eduction.

A hundred and fifty years have passed since this was written, and today almost all halachic authorities agree that people with hearing impairments may be integrated into social frameworks, and so, without question, also into religious ones. This is a rare and definitive development, which points to society’s power to influence legal attitudes, and among them those of our own halacha.

3. The Status of the Blind – Halacha as a Pioneering Force

Like deaf people, people with severe visual impairment have also experienced a remarkable improvement in their status. In the past it was commonplace to alienate blind people and to degrade them. Blind people had no means of earning a living, and instead went begging from door to door or on street corners. Most blind people were condemned to lives of suffering and could aspire to no personal achievements. The exceptional few, Homer, Braille, Helen Keller and others, showed outstanding talents and were the exceptions that prove the unproductive rule. As in the case of deaf people, here too attitudes have changed in the modern age, with the establishment of schools using Braille script (invented in 1829).

In contrast with deafness, blindness was an area of disagreement among the Tana’im [sages of the Mishnaic period, c. 70-220 C.E.]. Rabbi Yehuda deemed a blind person to be exempt of all religious obligations, while the other sages judged him to be obligated. The Mishna in Tractate Bava Kama states that ‘One who humiliates a blind person is found liable’. The Mishna here is raising the question of the damages payments one might be required to pay a blind person upon whom one has inflicted bodily harm. Harming a ‘normal’ person requires one to pay, among other expenses, a payment for the humiliation involved. Without entering into the intricacies of the discussion, we may understand that ‘humiliation’ payments are paid to a person in response to the damage rendered to his standing in society. The very ruling that one who humiliates a blind person is expected to hand over a humiliation payment raises the possibility that somebody must have thought otherwise. The Talmud, indeed, seeks to claim that this mishna does not correspond to the attitude of Rabbi Yehuda, one of the Galilean sages of the latter half of the second century:

This mishna is not compliant with the view of Rabbi Yehuda, as we have been taught, “Rabbi Yehuda says: A blind person has no humiliation payment; and in this way Rabbi Yehuda would offer reprieve to people who would otherwise be condemned to exile [for manslaughter], to lashes and to the death penalty.[4]

The Talmud offers formal rationales to explain the attitude of Rabbi Yehuda, but these are not our concern. Of interest to us is the bottom line, and its significance is that a blind person is in no way integrated into the family of man. The Tosafists (of twelfth century France) experienced unease with the definition of blindness in Rabbi Yehuda’s teachings, and qualified his position:

A blind person who humiliates another is exempt [from payment], but one who humiliates a blind person is obligated, for it does not make sense that he should be exempt.[5]

The statement here is an interesting one. The blind person is liberated from responsibility, but society is not liberated from the responsibility to care for him. In relation to the blind, then, we find enormous responsibility on the part of the sages, who consistently seek to include the group in the community. One prominent example of this is the question of calling a blind man up to make a blessing over the Torah scroll in the synagogue. The medieval Jewish legal authorities debate the ability of a blind man to bless over the Torah, when he clearly cannot read the words, for ‘words in writing are not to be said from memory’. In conclusion, however, many of these authorities agreed that this was a case worthy of the principle ‘It is time to act for God; they are uprooting Your Torah’.[6] Rather than risk losing the human being within the blind man they agreed to rule that he should be called up to the Torah and bless over it, just like any other, fully obligated man. The decision was made hundreds of years before any mainstream social awakening with regard to the needs of the blind community.

4. Halachic Attentiveness to Social Trends in Relation to the Place of People with Disabilities in Society

As we have seen in these two examples, Halacha is not indifferent to changes in the status of people with disabilities in society. At times it creates the change; at others it responds to it. Today we witness significant social alertness to the place of people with disabilities within our society. Accessibility for people with mobility problems, subtitles for people with hearing impairments, Braille for people with visual impairments and so on and on. The State of Israel devotes significant budgets to this issue, and there is a special chair in the Law Ministry for dealing with issues relating to people with disabilities.

Halacha must listen to the voices welling up from the depths of society, and respond to them. The public’s attitude to people with disabilities is awakening the world of the halacha to find within itself the mechanism that will make it possible to include all people with disabilities within it. I will demonstrate this through a discussion of the question of whether a cohen with a physical blemish may go up to the ark to bless the congregation with the priestly blessing.

The Mishna in Tractate Megilla lays down that “a cohen who has blemishes may not raise his palms [to participate in the priestly blessing]”.[7] The Talmud understands the mishna in its broad sense, describing all the kinds of blemish that could invalidate a cohen from raising his palms. The amoraim [sages of the Talmudic period, c. 220-550 C.E.] rise to the occasion and offer their own contributions to this list of disqualifiers:

Rav Huna said: A zavlagan [the medieval commentators were divided as to whether this describes a person with a disease causing excessive tearing or salivation] may not raise his palms.

This brings the Talmud to raise an objection:

Yet there was a certain zavlagan [priest] who lived in Rav Huna’s neighbourhood, and he used to raise his palms!

Could it be that Rav Huna does not practice what he preaches? The answer follows:

That [particular priest] was familiar in his own city.

As the discussion continues, an early source is brought, declaring that a man’s familiarity in society is the factor that determines whether he may take part in the priestly blessing, or whether his presence, with his physical deformities, will cause a social problem. The section continues to tell exactly the same story, as an event that took place in the beit midrash [study hall] and city of Rabbi Yochanan, Tiberius:

Rabbi Yochanan said: A [priest] who is blind in one of his eyes may not raise his palms. Yet there was a certain man [like that] in Rabbi Yochanan’s neighbourhood who did raise his palms! That man was familiar in his own city.

Here the case in question is not that of a zavlagan but of a man who is partially sighted. In principle, such a man is disqualified from giving the priestly blessing – but the community have the power to rule otherwise by their actions. If the man is familiar in his own city, then he raises his hands to bless the congregation.

This distinction is delineated in the halacha.[8] It is clear that if the community had not reacted to those ‘blemished’ people with acceptance, the attitude of the halacha would not have changed; neither in the eyes of Rav Huna nor in those of Rabbi Yochanan.

If this is the case, the public has enormous power to define the place and standing of people with disabilities in society. Our attitude towards the disabled is not decreed from heaven. It rests upon the attention and responsibility of the entire community. If we know to see the good and the light within each one of us, we will succeed in containing every creation, in fixing the place of people with disabilities in the very heart of the community, and in allowing each and every person to take a part in our shared effort to repair the world by the light of the Torah.

Rabbi Lau directs the Beit Midrash for Social Justice, Beit Morasha of Jerusalem. He is also the author of several Hebrew books on Rabbinics, rabbi of the Jerusalem Ramban Synagogue, and regularly broadcasts religious programming on Israeli television. This article was originally published in Hebrew in Bema’aglei Tzedek 11 (Jerusalem, 1995). Translation: Jessica Sacks


[1] Ta’anit 20a-20b.

[2] Responsa of Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer, II, Even Ha’Ezer, Hoshen Mishpat ve’Miluim, 58.

[3] Divrei Chaim II, Even Ha’Ezer 72. Printed previously by Rabbi Yehuda Levov in Malechet Heresh, Vienna, 1864.

[4] Bava Kama 86b-87a.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The principle is brought into  play in extreme cases when it is deemed necessary to contravene a Torah injunction in order to preserve the spirit of the law (translator’s note).

[7] Megilla 24b

[8] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 128

And People Feel Sorry For Me… – Belinda Rodin January 8, 2010

Posted by jewishdisabilityunite in The Lighter Side of Disability.
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Back at Succos, I was approached about being involved in this website. Excitedly, my thoughts immediately went to a blog – the lighter side of disability. I mean everything has a lighter side, doesn’t it? I remember when I first became disabled, my then husband asked me how I could smile and laugh when our life was falling apart. Well I say how could I not? Life is for the living, there’s nothing so bad that can’t be made better with a smile! Anyway, so I suggested this blog, with funny anecdotes and ironic stories swimming round my head. So why is it that I’m now looking at an empty computer screen …?

 One of my friends came over the other day and we set to work clearing out my wardrobe. Now when I say we, I actually mean that she did the work and I merely directed from the comfort of my bed! Who says there’s no benefit to being disabled – you never really need to get your hands dirty, someone will always do it for you! One of my carers calls it ‘playing the disabled card’.

 I recently found out that in M&S and Boots (and I’m sure in other shops) not only are disabled people allowed to jump the queue, we’re actually supposed to. A couple of weeks ago, after queuing for what seemed like hours, I was told off by a cashier for waiting in line! Is this political correctness gone mad or should we just collect the benefits when we find them?

 Anyway, back to my wardrobe. I’m just like any other self-respecting thirty something, by which I mean I’ve got lots of clothes and even more shoes. I might not get out much and yes I spend a lot of time in bed, but a girl’s got to have options! Nevertheless, even I know that when the cupboard doesn’t close and my shoes are making a bid for freedom, it’s time to call in the cavalry. Well it was while I was sorting out some shoes for the Charity Shop, that we came across a pair of black flats in seemingly pristine condition. My friend wondered why I would be giving away brand new shoes; chesed is one thing but this seemed a step too far. In fact my shoes were 5 years old, along with many of the other shiny footwear in my cupboard. Have you got it yet, another advantage of being in a wheelchair – your shoes are eternally new! Another thing, no need to worry about tznius, nobody will know there’s a huge slit all the way up your leg. If your skirt doesn’t do up, who cares when the zip can’t actually be seen and nor can the rip or the dirty mark. And people feel sorry for me!

 I live in a non-Jewish Nursing Home, which is about 30 mins drive away from Jewish life. This I’m sure you can imagine is not an easy feat for an orthodox 32 year old with all her marbles intact. Unless I have company, Shabbos and Yom Tov is usually the antithesis of what I would hope and so I have a heter to travel. Last Shabbos, I was supposed to have lunch with my rabbi, along with about 10 of my friends. It was being planned for weeks, when I go out everything is always a big production. The day came, snow and ice aside I was determined to go and have a good time. Wrapping up warm, it seems that although I was ready to brave the cold our clapped out van wasn’t. No amount of cajoling could get the lift to work and my friends were left waiting (and waiting and waiting) for their guest of honour. As one friend put it ‘it was like having a birthday party without the birthday girl’! Let’s look on the bright side – my alterative Shabbos lunch of soup and ryvita certainly doesn’t pile on the pounds as much as challah and cholent!

 Well that’s about it for now. Until the next time, remember to keep smiling – even if it’s sometimes through gritted teeth!